Soprano Audra McDonald isn't superstitious, but an hour before curtain she follows a ritualistic recipe: yoga for relaxation, bananas and nuts for potassium and protein. Otherwise‹well, the soprano won't go flat, but she might fall flat on her face. "I get dizzy. I really do," she says, having passed out during her English diction recital at Juilliard, her final Carousel audition, and at a tribute to Rosie O'Donnell. But properly fueled, she's fine. And just where she wants to be.
"When you're singing something truly wonderful," she says, "it's not work. It's your instrument, your soul, you're flying. It's as good as anything gets."
This time‹as a guest artist in the Philharmonic's tribute to Charles Ives‹she is performing a set of Songs of Ragtime and Reminiscence, and the role of Kitty Oppenheimer in the world premiere of Easter Eve 1945. This excerpt from John Adams's opera-in-progress, Doctor Atomic, is about the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb. A touchy subject indeed.
"This piece is a reflection of what's getting ready to happen," she explains. "It's very spiritual. And Kitty's a mother, so she's deeply affected by the moral implications‹the future of the world, which means the future of her child." (Not for the first time is McDonald expressing this particular maternal tug. In the 1998 musical Ragtime, she confronted a risky future for that world and that child, and won one of her three Tony awards.)
'Tis said that Mr. Adams, who will be on the podium for Ms. McDonald's performances (May 21, 22, and 25), wrote Easter Eve 1945‹a New York Philharmonic Commission in association with the San Francisco Opera‹with her in mind. "Certainly with my voice in mind" (and some input‹"a note here or there, emotionally as well as vocally"). Still, she found the music tricky to learn. "But once you learn it, it's there forever, because it's so singular. Once your heart grabs hold of it, it's in your files." And a joy to perform, "because the melody is so beautiful, so soaring, so heartbreaking. You feel Kitty aching as she moves through her dilemma, and as the music gets more emotional, the dissonance almost disappears.
"Singing this is like putting on a tailor-made suit," she adds.
So it was written for her? "I'm not bold enough to say that." A pause. A smile. "But I am singing it first."
Ellen Stern, a writer and Juilliard alumna, lives in New York.